Social distancing’s push to use technology has enhanced client service, says Russell Alexander
Stuck in lockdown, how do you keep your marriage together? If that does not work, how do you get a divorce during a global pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has – for better or worse – brought families together, provided they had been living together in mid-March. Lindsay-Ont.-area family lawyer Russell Alexander was set to publish his second book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Divorce, when the pandemic struck. He delayed publication to add a new chapter focussed on the family-law issues emerging from COVID-19.
“The coronavirus raised a whole set of issues,” said Alexander, founder of Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers, in a press release. “How do you handle co-parenting handoffs during a lockdown? How do you address spousal support during a worldwide recession? Should risk of contracting the virus factor into custody decisions? My goal with this book was to help families get answers.”
Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers has been in business for 20 years. After clients repeatedly asking the same questions about divorce, the firm began producing handouts and brochures, to answer those frequently asked questions. They eventually decided to compile the work into a book.
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Divorce developed guidelines – with the help of social workers – on how to keep an already stressed relationship intact. The book touches on options for divorce, alternative dispute mechanisms and collaborative practices including collaborative divorce.
“Our firm has long advocated for families to use alternatives to the courtroom, but that has never been more important than during the pandemic,” said Alexander.
Having integrated the new-normal of COVID into the advice, the book details some newly emerging family law issues. Children’s best interests have changed and courts are balancing the need of parental contact with, with the risks of contracting the virus. With courts closed and judges only taking emergency hearings, many family law disputes will be delayed. Fights over a parent’s social media use may be set aside while a parent’s alleged flouting of social distancing rules may warrant an immediate hearing, said the release.
Alexander is a Toronto native who attended the U of T and then Osgoode Hall Law School. After marrying a woman from Lindsay, the couple decided the smaller community would be ideal to raise a family. He opened his law office there and, over the next two decades, has added five others in Markham, Oshawa, Whitby, Peterborough and Toronto.
After an initial dip in business for the first few weeks of the pandemic, Alexander told Law Times his firm has been able to deliver more efficient client service by replacing in-person meetings with video-conferencing.
“If the client would call for an appointment, they might need to wait two or three days before we can get them in to physical office to meet with a lawyer across from a desk for a traditional consultation. Now we can meet with clients the same day using Skype or Zoom, or even by phone. So, where clients would have to wait 2- 3- 4 days to get an appointment, now they get they get an appointment the same day they call in.”
Alexander’s lawyers have had their schedules blown open by cancelled court dates and in-person settlement meetings and shifting to technology has led to results for clients, Alexander says.
“So it became a lot easier to settle cases. Right, we can contact opposing counsel and set up a Zoom meeting within a day or two, where traditionally it might be three or four weeks to get an in-person meeting.”
“I think in terms of the law firms and the lawyers who have been able to adapt to the technology. I think we're able to deliver better service. We’re able to deliver faster service and I think the clients are happy to embrace the technology. Initially, they were a little hesitant, but not having to drive an hour across Toronto and traffic to go see your lawyer for an appointment… they love it.”
Alexander does not predict things will be back to normal until a vaccine emerges. It is imperative on lawyers to adapt to these technological solutions, as well as adding extra steps to implement safeguards and avoid fraud, misrepresentation or putting certain clients – who may be in abusive relationships – in a vulnerable position, he says.
“Hopefully, this will jolt our system out of a paper-based system and to more electronic format. Everything currently with the court is paper and that's why they can't function effectively right now,” Alexander says.
“Before the pandemic, we heard about overloaded cases in the court system. We heard a lot about unrepresented parties. We heard a lot of delay, in terms of trying to get a case through the court system to completion. And I think with technology, a lot of those concerns can be addressed.”
Alexander’s first book was The Path to a Successful Divorce.